Biden Administration’s Decision to… | Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
sign up

Biden Administration’s Decision to Prohibit Menthol Cigarettes and Flavored Cigars Will Protect Kids, Advance Health Equity and Save Lives, Especially Among Black Americans

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
April 29, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With today’s announcement that the FDA will initiate rulemaking to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars (including menthol-flavored cigars), the Biden Administration is taking truly historic action to protect kids from tobacco addiction, advance health equity and save lives, especially among Black Americans. While the FDA said it would issue proposed rules within the next year, we urge the FDA to expedite this time frame and move swiftly to propose, finalize and implement the necessary regulations to turn this decision into life-saving action.

The Administration’s new policy has the potential to be the strongest action our nation has ever taken to drive down the number of kids who start smoking and the number of Americans who are sickened and killed by tobacco. It will crack down on the tobacco industry’s most pernicious tactic for luring and addicting kids – the marketing of flavored products like menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. And it will end the industry’s predatory targeting of Black communities with menthol cigarettes – a form of institutional racism that has taken a devastating toll on Black lives and health, is a major cause of health disparities, and must be stopped once and for all.

The Biden Administration deserves enormous credit for standing up to the tobacco industry and announcing this bold, life-saving policy today. This decision keeps the President’s promise to follow the science and put America’s kids, and racial and health equity, at the center of his agenda. We also encourage the Biden Administration to increase the federal government’s efforts to help smokers who want to quit and who will be motivated by this action to quit. These steps are more critical than ever because the CDC has found that smoking increases the risk of severe illness from Covid-19, which has so disproportionately impacted Black Americans and other communities of color.

This decision is supported by overwhelming scientific evidence. As the FDA itself concluded in a 2013 scientific report, menthol cigarettes are easier for kids to start smoking, more addictive and harder for smokers to quit. Half of all kids who ever try smoking start with menthol cigarettes. And because of the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing, 85% of Black smokers now smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to less than 10% in the 1950s. Menthol cigarettes are a major reason why Black Americans have a harder time quitting smoking and are more likely to die from tobacco-related diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. 

In addition, cheap, flavored cigars – sold in hundreds of flavors like banana smash, cherry dynamite and chocolate, as well as menthol – have flooded the market in recent years and fueled the popularity of these products with kids. According to the 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey, cigars are now the most popular tobacco product among Black high school students and the second most popular tobacco product, after e-cigarettes, among all high school students.

The tobacco industry is certain to go all-out in fighting the Administration’s plan, including pushing false claims that it will subject Black Americans to more law enforcement abuse. Today’s announcement makes crystal clear that FDA enforcement will be focused on manufacturers and retailers, not individual consumers: “[T]he FDA’s enforcement of any ban on menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars will only address manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers. The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product.” The tobacco industry’s cynical fear-mongering cannot hide the fact that it is the industry itself that has caused so much harm to Black Americans through the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes.

For all these reasons, there is strong support for prohibiting menthol cigarettes from a wide range of organizations, scientists and elected officials – including from leading Black organizations and members of Congress. Ten Black civil rights and public health organizations recently wrote to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in support of prohibiting menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, calling the tobacco industry’s targeting of Black Americans “the true injustice.” In February 2020, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) voted overwhelmingly for legislation to prohibit menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, and 34 CBC members recently sent a letter to Secretary Becerra expressing strong support for prohibiting menthol cigarettes. Other individuals and organizations that have stated their support include:

Additional Information: Why the FDA Must Prohibit Menthol Cigarettes

There is overwhelming scientific evidence to support prohibiting menthol cigarettes. Both the FDA and its independent Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee have issued comprehensive scientific reports concluding that eliminating menthol cigarettes would benefit public health in the United States, especially among Black Americans. The cooling mint flavor of menthol numbs the throat and masks the harshness of tobacco smoke, making it easier for kids to start smoking and eventually become addicted. The evidence also shows that menthol cigarettes are more addictive and harder to quit. The FDA’s own scientific analysis concluded that menthol cigarettes increase smoking initiation and progression to regular smoking among youth and young adults, increase nicotine dependence (addiction), and reduce success in quitting, especially among Black menthol smokers.

A February 2021 study published in the journal Tobacco Control underscored the enormous harm menthol cigarettes have caused to public health in the United States. The study found that from 1980 to 2018, menthol cigarettes were responsible for 10.1 million extra smokers, 378,000 premature deaths and 3 million life years lost during this time period. This amounts to nearly 10,000 premature deaths and over 265,000 new smokerseach year over the 38-year period.

Menthol cigarettes have had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the health and lives of Black Americans because of the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing. Since the 1950s, the industry has targeted Black communities and kids with pervasive marketing of menthol cigarettes through magazine advertising, sponsorship of community and music events, free samples of cigarettes, retail promotions and other tactics. In the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, that number is 85%. (For more information, see our recent report Stopping Menthol, Saving Lives.)

Menthol cigarettes are a major reason why tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans, claiming 45,000 Black lives every year. Tobacco use is a major contributor to three of the leading causes of death among Black Americans – heart disease, cancer and stroke – and Black Americans die from these conditions at far higher rates than other Americans. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the Black community. Black smokers are more likely to try to quit than other groups, but because of their disproportionate use of menthol, they are less likely to successfully quit.

The Citizen Petition and Lawsuit that Led to the FDA’s Decision on Menthol Cigarettes

The FDA issued its decision to prohibit menthol cigarettes in response to a citizen petition and subsequent lawsuit filed by public health organizations. In April 2013, 19 public health organizations, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, filed the citizen petition calling on the FDA to prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes. In 2020, several public health and medical organizations filed a federal lawsuit asserting that the FDA’s failure to respond to the 2013 citizen petition and take action on menthol cigarettes constituted “unreasonable delay” in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The FDA in January committed to the court that it would issue a “final citizen petition response” by April 29, 2021. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), Action on Smoking and Health, the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association.